This morning’s headlines are filled with reports of war, pandemic, political turmoil, and — perhaps most distressingly — further chronicles in the lives of a couple of people named Harry and Meghan. With so much higgly piggly sending everyone’s blood pressure into the stratosphere, it seems only appropriate that we compensate with a story that has no controversy whatsoever and recounts nothing but moments of peaceful bliss.
Alas, even those plans fall faster than candy being chucked out of an airplane, because today we delve into the history of one of our guilty pleasures: the Baby Ruth candy bar. It is a story that is sweet, surprising, and takes many twists and turns. It is a candy that has broken records, tested trademarks, and even played a role in the destruction of a city and the end of a war.
Children may be the primary audience for candy, but that doesn’t mean the confectionary business is child’s play. Competition is fierce, with each company looking for ways to distinguish its product from all the others.
The success of the Hershey’s milk chocolate bar at the beginning of the 20th century inspired many competitors. As the United States entered into the Roaring Twenties, there was no shortage of choices for those looking for a sugar fix.
Chicago confectioner Otto Schnering needed something big to pump life into his Curtis Candy Company. Its signature product was the Kandy Kake candy bar. Why its name eschewed the letter “C” is a mystery, particularly for a company whose three-word name was an alliterative goldmine of “C”. The Kandy Kake, was a combination of milk chocolate, peanuts, and a pudding center “richer than marshmallow, fluffier than nougat, better than either of them.” Unfortunately, the Kandy Kake just wasn’t flying off the shelves. Perhaps would-be customers were dubious about ingesting anything made by people who can’t be trusted to spell words as simple as “candy” or “cake.”
Schnering made a bold move. He revamped the recipe for the Kandy Kake. He turned it into a chocolate-covered candy bar with peanuts, caramel, and nougat. He also ditched the name in favor of a new moniker: Baby Ruth.
Even if you are not a baseball fan, you probably see the connection between the new name for the product and that of a certain sports legend. George Herman “Babe” Ruth was the biggest name in baseball. The “Sultan of Swat” dominated the headlines as much as he commanded the baseball diamond. The Baby Ruth candy bar hit the shelves in 1921, at the time that Babe Ruth was at the height of his popularity. Within five years, sales of Baby Ruth candy bars hit $1 million per month. Schnering had to increase the size of his factory in order to keep up. By 1926, the Curtis Candy Company’s production facilities were the largest of their kind in the world. By 1928, Baby Ruth was the best-selling candy bar in the United States.
How did Schnering get away with his blatant appropriation of the baseball player’s name? Schnering insisted there was no misappropriation and expressed utter astonishment that anyone would ever jump to that conclusion. Just look at the name of the product, after all: it’s Baby Ruth, not Babe Ruth.
Just one letter’s difference, but Schnering insisted that it made all the difference in the world. Just who was this “Baby Ruth” who was immortalized in chocolate, caramel, and peanuts? It was none other than Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.
Ruth Cleveland was born in 1891, in between her father’s two non-consecutive terms in the White House. When he was re-elected in 1892, young Ruth became an instant celebrity. The press dubbed her “Baby Ruth” and fawned over the fact that a baby would be living in the White House for the first time in quite a while.
It was in her honor, said Schnering, that the Curtis Candy Company’s big sensation was named. Any similarity to baseball players living or dead was purely coincidental.
If this explanation strikes you as a bit far-fetched, you aren’t alone. While it is true that Ruth Cleveland was well known during her father’s administration, those days were nearly thirty years in the past. By 1921, she was 1) no longer a baby, 2) no longer a household name, and 3) no longer alive. Ruth passed away in 1904 from diphtheria — 17 years before the Baby Ruth candy bar was introduced. Is it really plausible that Schnering had Ruth Cleveland in mind at the time when Babe Ruth’s name was in every newspaper in the United States?
You may think the choice of name was daring. It was nothing compared to the level of audaciousness it took to challenge Babe Ruth’s right to use his own name.
In 1926, Babe Ruth saw his opportunity to cash in on the lucrative candy market. He licensed his name to the George H. Ruth Candy Company and attempted to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His dreams of hitting a home run with this business venture quickly turned into a strike-out. The Curtis Candy Company sued for trademark infringement.
The basis of the candy company’s legal case rested upon its insistence that its candy bar had nothing to do with the baseball player; it was all about that little girl who used to live in the White House. Because of that, the Curtis Candy Company was able to argue that Babe Ruth wasn’t capitalizing on his own name. Instead, he was trying to cash in on the success of the Baby Ruth candy bar.
Are you convinced? The courts certainly were. The Curtis Candy Company prevailed in its case and again when it was appealed. The facts and legal reasoning can be found in George H. Ruth Candy Co. v. Curtiss Candy, 49 F.2d 1033, 18 C.C.P.A. 1471 (C.C.P.A. 1931).
In its first decade, the Baby Ruth candy bar grew to become so popular that the courts concluded it had a better right to the name than the mega-superstar baseball player. No small accomplishment for the former Kandy Kake.
One of the techniques used by Schnering to make his product a household name was aggressive advertising. He put the candy bar’s logo on just about everything. His strategic use of consumer marketing resulted in beach balls, matchbooks, pocketknives, and many other items bearing the Baby Ruth logo.
In 1923, Schnering took his advertising campaign to the skies. He hired stunt pilot Doug Davis to fly over Pittsburgh in a Waco biplane emblazoned with the Baby Ruth logo. Davis got the attention of the folks on the ground by performing daring aviation stunts while flying just a few dozen feet over the heads of the spectators. After getting everyone’s attention, he released hundreds of Baby Ruth candy bars, each attached to a tiny rice paper parachute.
The effect on those below was electric. There were reports of children running into the streets to grab the candy. Vehicular traffic came to a standstill. Some risked falling from windows as they snatched at falling candy. Some fights even broke out as grown men competed with each other for a precious free candy bar.
City officials were less than thrilled. They immediately enacted ordinances that limited the ability to repeat stunts such as this. That didn’t stop Schnering from taking his aerial advertising to other communities. He established the Baby Ruth Flying Circus and sent pilots across the country to repeat the Pittsburgh performance throughout the country.
Doug Davis continued as a pilot for the Curtis Candy Company. He frequently chose a volunteer to assist him, throwing the candy so Davis could focus on the airplane controls. While he was performing his stunts in Miami, he chose the son of one of the principal distributors of the candy bar in southern Florida. That 12-year-old boy got his first airplane ride that day, and it changed his life. He chose a career in aviation and would ultimately be known for dropping something much bigger than a candy bar from an aircraft.
Twenty years after his first plane ride, that boy was known as Paul Tibbets, the commander and pilot of an airplane named the Enola Gay. On August 6, 1945, Tibbets flew the B-29 Superfortress bomber to drop something on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. This time, it wasn’t a candy bar — it was an atomic bomb.